We aren't graced with a cornucopia of tightly spaced game releases every fall. This one looks particularly bountiful, though. Rage is fresh out the door, and still to come are juggernauts like Battlefield 3, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, Batman: Arkham City, and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. As the days get shorter and the weather colder, some of us are preparing to shutter ourselves in front of our PCs for a whole season of gaming.
Some of us are also going to want to grab new graphics cards in order to fully enjoy this latest round of releases. Therein lies a problem. As plentiful as these fresh titles will be, they'll still be no match for the sheer quantity of graphics cards in the market. What to choose?
Avid TR readers will know to check our existing portfolio of GPU reviews for the goods on the current crop of chips from AMD and Nvidia. Silicon is only part of the story, though. Even when they're based on the same GPU, graphics cards can come with different coolers, various combinations of higher-than-stock core and memory clock speeds, and other niceties like bonus display outputs and free bundled games. They're all priced differently, too, sometimes quite far apart from each other. Choosing a given GPU might not be so tough, but selecting the right card based on that chip, as it turns out, is a whole other story.
Enthusiasts seeking the sweet spot in graphics performance would do well to consider the Radeon HD 6950 1GB. Cards can be snagged for less than $250, and they deliver ample performance at resolutions up to 1080p, making them great choices for the next wave of games. If you'd like more details about what makes the 6950's Cayman graphics processor tick, check out our original review of the 6900 series. Today, we'll be focusing on the attributes of Radeon HD 6950 1GB cards from Gigabyte, MSI, and XFX. By the time we're done, you should have a clear picture of not just which card is the fastest, but also where they stand in terms of noise levels, power consumption, overclocking potential, and bang for your buck.
Let's start alphabetically with our Gigabyte offering. Pardon the awkward-to-read model number, but with card makers peddling multiple variants based on the same GPU, we need to identify the precise model we're going to review. The GV-R695OC-1GD is perhaps the most visually striking of the cards we've assembled, but mercifully, it's not because of gaudy decorations. The 11.4" circuit board is dotted with not one, not two, but three PWM fans. These fans rest on a vapor-chamber cooler with three copper heatpipes poking out. It's quite a sight to behold.
The ample cooler is appropriate, because this bad boy features the highest core clock rate of our three contenders: 870MHz, well above AMD's 800MHz stock speed. The gigabyte of GDDR5 memory runs at the AMD-prescribed 1000MHz, however, for an effective transfer rate of 5.0 GT/s. Gigabyte has eschewed the reference port arrangement, trading the two mini-DisplayPort outputs for a single, full-sized DisplayPort out. There are still two DVI outputs and one gold-plated HDMI port next to that.
This card belongs to Gigabyte's Ultra Durable VGA series, which means its circuit board packs twice as much copper as traditional designs, "1st tier" memory from either Samsung or Hynix, solid-state Japanese capacitors, ferrite-core chokes, and low-RDS MOSFETs. In simpler terms, Gigabyte claims these perks enable 5-10% lower GPU temperatures, 10-30% greater overclocking capabilities, and a 10-30% reduction in power switching loss compared to the reference design. We'll see how the card compares to the competition in our power and noise testing shortly.
The bundled CD doesn't include any overclocking software—just drivers and, for some reason, the Yahoo! Toolbar. However, Gigabyte has a utility called EasyBoost that can be downloaded from its website. EasyBoost lets you adjust clock and fan speeds in pretty much the same way as AMD's Overdrive control panel, and like it, EasyBoost limits overclocked speeds to 900MHz for the GPU and 1325MHz for the memory. On the upside, you can use the tool to update the card's VGA BIOS.
Gigabyte's GV-R695OC-1GD sells for $239.99 before a $20 mail-in rebate at Newegg. Right now, it also ships with a free copy of Codemasters' DiRT 3. The card is covered with a three-year warranty.
Read on for the skinny on our other two contenders.